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The Braves are trying to back their way into the playoffs

Trying to make sense of the Braves’ 2021 season.

MLB: Colorado Rockies at Atlanta Braves Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

When I was in middle school, I was the funniest kid in my chess club. It wasn’t a high bar to clear. I’ve thought about that a few times this season.

If I told you back in March that on September 17th, the Braves would be three games up in the NL East with the Phillies and Mets chasing, it would all seem normal to you. You would think the Braves are doing exactly what most predicted they would do; win their fourth straight division title.

And technically, that is what’s happening. The Braves have been the best team in the NL East and are easily the favorite to win the division with two weeks left, just as most projected. The season has followed that script.

But it hasn’t been normal. It hasn’t been close to normal. I’ve been watching Braves baseball as far back as my memory goes the 2021 season may be the most unpredictable. From week to week, game to game, even inning to inning, this team has been impossible to explain or predict.

From August 3rd to August 22nd, the Braves played 18 games and went 16-2, including a 9-game winning streak. They were one of the best teams in baseball.

For the rest of the season, they’re 60-66.

For 88% of the season they’ve been, at best, a mediocre team and at worst, just a bad one. And for the other 12%, they were elite. I have no explanation. The Braves are attempting to win a division with one, great 18-game stretch of baseball and nothing else. And what’s crazier than that is they’re currently a heavy favorite to succeed. They might pull this off.

It probably doesn’t need to be said but winning a division with one good stretch of baseball normally doesn’t work. Normally it doesn’t come close to working. The Braves are on pace to win 85 games this season. That shouldn’t win you a division title. But, again, this isn’t a normal season.

The Mets have fully embraced their role as THE METS and on-script have nose-dived after leading the division for most of the season. The Phillies, meanwhile, have figured out the eternal secret to mediocrity and despite having the likely MVP and possible Cy Young winner on their team, are magnetically tied to a .500 record. The Marlins and Nationals are non-factors. The Braves’ division rivals could not be being helping them more if they were on the payroll.

And, still, this is a close race.

Since their 16-2 stretch ended on August 22nd, the Braves have played 20 games and have gone 8-12, including a disappointing 4-4 home stand against some of the worst teams in baseball. Right back to mediocrity. The Braves appear hell-bent on falling ass-backwards into the playoffs.

Why the season has been littered with such long stretches of bad baseball is easy to see but hard to understand. In one-run games this season, the Braves are 23-28. That is…not good. And this is after going 62-34 in one-run games the last three seasons combined. They’ve built this division title run on winning tight games, being clutch in late-and-close situations, exciting comebacks, etc. But for whatever reason, they haven’t had the same magic this season.

Purely from analytical standpoint, results in one-run games are mostly a product of randomness. By definition, the game can turn on one at-bat or one pitch, which opens up large amounts of variance in regards to the outcome. The last two games against Colorado illustrate this point. We learn more about teams from their dominating performances, or blow-outs, than we do the randomness of close games.

And the Braves have had plenty of blow-out wins this season. It’s another factor that’s added to the unpredictability of this team. Atlanta can win a game 12-1 one night and lose 4-3 the next night. It’s why their run differential remains one of the best in baseball and also why they produce so much frustration for the fans who watch them. The most consistent characteristic of the 2021 Braves has been their inconsistency.

It does need to be mentioned that the Braves don’t have Ronald Acuña Jr. They also don’t have Mike Soroka or Marcell Ozuna but Acuña was, and is, the best player on the team and was easily headed for an MVP season before tearing his ACL. In fact, it’s been 10 weeks since Acuña played in a game and he still leads the Braves in fWAR and is still in the top 10 in the NL. Atlanta being on pace for ~86 wins without those three guys is an impressive accomplishment.

But the injuries can’t be a blanket excuse for everything. Not after Alex Anthopoulos went and added so much production at the trade deadline, and with guys like Austin Riley coming though with career seasons to help carry the burden. Even with the injuries, the Braves should be running away with this division, if for no other reason, just because of how bad it is.

And the finish won’t be easy. Tonight Atlanta starts a three city west coast trip with the first being a three-game series in San Francisco against the best team in baseball. But even if it wasn’t against the best team in baseball, I still wouldn’t be all that confident. Not how they’ve played lately or really all season minus one great stretch. Confidence is a product of reliability and consistency, neither of which you would use to define the Braves 2021 season. They have 17 games left to play this season, and a potential 18th if it’s needed, and if I were betting on it, anything more than 7-8 or 8-8 would be tough to sell. And that still might be good enough to win the division.

That’s the reality in 2021. To this point, the Braves aren’t winning the NL East as much as they’ve done the best job not losing it. They’ve sucked the least. When I was in middle school as was the funniest kid in my chess club. I think about that every time I look at standings.

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